Just before seeing this movie, I voiced my hopes on Twitter; it's the done thing now, you know. "Hoping for nothing less than a live-action Heavy Metal, for better or worse." Thus tweeted Ben.
To an extent, I wish this was just a live-action Heavy Metal; that it was literally nothing more than a series of utterly nonsensical but downright cool sequences of tripped-out sci-fi fantasia, and that the plot device to justify it all was simply that Baby Doll was sniffing the urine of a defensive male cat and revelling in the subsequent psychedelic nirvana.
If Zack Snyder had made that film, it would have felt honest. Sure, he'd have complaints of sexist objectification and anti-intellectualism hurled at him from all corners, but he would have well and truly scratched the principle creative itch that brought this film into being. It would have been crude and sleazy, and bought no favour with high brow critics, but generations of fanboys - and fangirls, for that matter - would have thanked him for it.
However, Snyder clearly had loftier goals in mind with Sucker Punch; to balance the eye candy with a message of female empowerment and the power of imagination. Not since the sequels to The Matrix - also Warners productions, curiously enough - has a megabudget Hollywood production made so bold (or possibly foolish?) an attempt to balance spectacle with philosophy, and in so doing crafted a film as likely to alienate as to enthrall the viewer. Ten minutes after viewing, I thought I hated it and was fully prepared to give it a scathing review. Over 24 hours later, i.e. the time of writing... I'm not so sure.
The nuts and bolts of the story: the girl we come to know as Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is framed by her abusive stepfather for the murder of her little sister, and promptly thrown into an asylum, where corrupt administrator Blue Jones (Oscar Isaacs) quietly arranges to have her lobotomised. However, the caring experimental psychiatrist Dr Gorski (Carla Gugino, sporting an amusingly theatrical Russian accent) encourages the girls to retreat into their imaginations in order to literally combat their personal demons. Baby Doll takes this advice to heart somewhat, as before we know it the asylum is a burlesque house/brothel, the inmates are dancers/sex slaves, Gorski is their choreographer/madam and Blue Jones is a mafioso running the joint. But it doesn't stop there, for Baby Doll soon retreats into a further realm of fantasy within this fantasy; and that's the world the film is really sold on, the steampunk-Tolkein-Manga-Edgar Rice Burroughs dreamworld in which she and her new friends do battle with demonic samurai, robot Nazi stormtroopers and dragons in a bid to win their freedom.
Once again - if Snyder had just gone ahead and made a simple adolescent wish fulfillment movie, which I can't help thinking he really wanted to make, then it would have been fine. We wouldn't have this awkward balancing act between sexploitation and feminism, as the pretty young ladies in their provocative costumes battle male oppression, figuratively and literally. The temptation is there to simply dismiss the whole enterprise as wank fodder, but to do that is to overlook a great deal. Yes, the women are young and attractive and their attire is somewhat fetishistic, but Snyder's camera does not leer; there are no obvious lingering up-skirt or down-blouse shots. Sex appeal is meant to be part of their arsenal in the fight against their captors, as the fantasy battle sequences only occur when Baby Doll dances for a male audience; her dancing, which is notably never shown, is said to make her irresistable to any man. There's no escaping the feeling, then, that Snyder and the film are trying to have their cake and eat it; to invite us to gaze longingly at these female fantasy figures, but then remind us of the ugly realities behind the glamour. It is this perhaps above all else that makes the film uncomfortable to watch, and not necessarily in a good way.
This may go without saying at this point, but all in all Sucker Punch smacks of simply trying too hard. The young leads all feel a bit out of their depth, none of them really ever convincing, and they're not helped by a script full of rather limp dialogue and obvious characterisations. Carla Gugino and Scott Glenn do fine in their respective mentor roles, but the only truly compelling performance comes from Oscar Isaacs, every bit as effective as both the unscrupulous administrator and the cartoonish mobster. Then there's the soundtrack; playing out like a high school mix tape or the set list of an ambitious covers band, we have contemporary renditions of classics from the Beatles, the Pixies, the Stooges, the Smiths and more besides, and although I was not aware of this until after viewing they're all sung by the cast themselves; for, on top of everthing else, it seems Sucker Punch was initially also intended to be a musical, with full song-and-dance routines having been left on the cutting room floor. Clearly, Snyder had no fears of baking a heavily overegged pudding.
I gather that the singing and dancing are not the only things to have been cut from the final movie. Sucker Punch is Snyder's first 12A/PG-13 film, and with its themes of abuse and fairly brutal battle sequences it pushes the envelope pretty far; as such, one feels the spectre of compromise hanging overhead. Much like Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner (and indeed Snyder's Watchmen) before it, there are almost certainly a couple of revised versions of this film waiting to see the light of day on DVD.
Yes, I did just compare this to Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner; and yes, in so doing I implicitly placed Snyder on a pedastal alongside Francis Ford Coppolla and Ridley Scott. I'm no huge fan of any of his work to date, but like it or not Snyder is a modern auteur, his directorial identity clearly recognisable in all his films. But after three adaptations in a row (Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen, in case you needed reminding), Sucker Punch was the first Snyder film to really stand on its own, able to be judged on its own terms. It may simply be that he was too anxious to craft his own distinct vision, hence the film turned out so heavily overloaded. But all in all, Sucker Punch is neither a film that can be fully embraced nor fully dismissed after a single viewing. It will bewilder and frustrate as much as it thrills and delights, but either way it does stand apart as something different, special and worthy of consideration. And above all, it stands testament to the fact that even in the contemporary mainstream, distinct cinematic voices like Snyder's can still be found, and that in itself is inspiring.